ΣΥΜΠΟΣΙΑ

Commemoration of Love and Friendship

Background: Plato’s Symposium

This holiday is named after Plato’s Symposium. We can pinpoint its intended dramatic date to Jan. 5th, 416 BCE (see the “Postscript” section for more information on the dating). The Symposium is a complex and beautiful piece of literature centered around the topic of love (érōs). Most of the dramatic events take place in Athens at the house of the tragedian playwright Agathon, who just won his first victory at the festival of Lenaia. Plato’s work is titled Symposium (Symposíon) because the characters are drinking (-pos-) together (sym-) in celebration of their friend and his achievement.

In keeping with the theme of its namesake, the holiday of Symposia is “a commemoration of love and friendship.” This page says a little about each of these in order to direct our thinking about the holiday and to inform our practice: first is love (érōs), then friendship (philía).

Love

Love is a complicated topic in Stoicism, but it’s more so because of our lack of primary sources. On the one hand, all the Stoics whose works have survived—Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius—often speak of love as a harmful form of desire and even a kind of insanity (manía). It’s something that must be eliminated from one’s psychology if one is to be truly happy. On the other hand, “a different érōs” is clearly described by the early Greek Stoics. Love is listed among the good emotions (eupatheiai) by Cicero; Diogenes Laertius; Arius Didymus; and Pseudo-Andronicus. This is the kind if love that must be clarified and uplifted during this holiday.

In line with our intuitions, it seems like the Stoics thought that love can be categorized as either good or bad depending on how it’s oriented. All love is characterized as directed towards a relationship with someone you find beautiful—that is clear. But the kind of relationship and the kind of beauty is what makes the difference. Bad love is an impulse towards outer beauty (physical attractiveness) and sexual intercourse. But good love, the only love worthy of the name, is an impulse toward inner beauty (virtue, reason) and friendship.

Here are some references to the Greek Stoics who promoted this ideal of love:

The wise man will fall in love with those who by their appearance reveal their natural aptitude for virtue, as Zeno says in the Republic, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Ways of Life, and Apollodorus in his Ethics. … Love aims at friendship, as Chrysippus says in his work On Love, and is not reprehensible. (DL 129-130)

They say that love is an effort (epibolē) to form a friendship because of an impression of beauty … That is why the wise person is also an erotic person and will fall in love with those worthy of love (Arius Didymus 11s; Cf. Plutarch, On Common Conceptions 1072f)

Friendship is an essential component of love according to Stoicism. This righteous love–healthy and rational love–is described as a kind of impulse called an epibolē (translated as either “effort,” “resolve,” or “inclination”). Its defining feature is that it anticipates a future relationship where both parties are wise and virtuous. True love entails true friendship.

IDEA FOR PRACTICE: Contemplate the love you have in all its manifestations (physical, intellectual, spiritual). Commit to never ignoring or repressing these feelings, but rather commit to finding ways to align them with your moral values. That is, take time to articulate what love looks like in the life to which you aspire. 

Friendship

All the characters in Plato’s Symposium had strong relationships: Pausanias and Agathon were lovers; Eryximachus and Phaedrus were close friends; Aristophanes and Aristodemus were friends since childhood; and Socrates and Alcibiades had a legendary relationship— lovers, military comrades, philosophers, tragic figures. 

[[work in progress]]

Someone asked Zeno what a friend is; he said, “Another me.” (7.23)

The goods in the soul are virtues and virtuous actions. The external are having a virtuous fatherland and a virtuous friend and their happiness. Those which are neither external nor in the soul are for someone, in and for himself, to be virtuous and to be happy. (7.95)

A friend and the benefits derived from him are instrumental goods; but confidence and prudence and freedom and enjoyment and good spirits and freedom from pain and every virtuous action are final goods. (7.96)

Appropriate actions (kathēkonta), then, are those which reason constrains us to do, such as honoring our parents, brothers, and fatherland and spending time with friends. Inappropriate are those which reason constrains us not to do, such as things like this: neglecting our parents, ignoring our brothers, being out of sympathy with our friends, overlooking the interests of our fatherland, and such things. (7.108)

Stoics say that friendship exists only among virtuous men, because of their similarity. They say that it is a sharing [or: community] of things needed for one’s life since we treat our friends as ourselves. They declare that one’s friend is worth choosing for his own sake and that having many friends is a good thing and [that] there is no friendship among base men and that no base man has a friend. And all the imprudent are mad; for they are not prudent, but do everything in accordance with madness, which is equivalent to imprudence. (7.123)

Foreshadow: Tragedy in Comedy

There’s one last theme that I would like to mention.

The year that symposium takes place, 416 BCE, would have had significance for contemporary readers. Within a year, three of the party-members—Phaedrus, Eryximachus (along with his father), and Alcibiades—would be accused of sacrilege. Soon afterwards, Alcibiades would be leading Athens on the notorious Sicilian Expedition, only to be recalled and forced into exile. In seventeen years, Socrates himself would be charged with impiety and executed (a fact that readers are reminded of throughout Alcibiades’ speech as he ‘accuses’ Socrates, calls ‘witnesses’ against him, and appeals to the ‘jury’).

Do these facts cast a shadow over the merry-making and affection they show each other in the Symposium? Or is the message that we all will experience tragedy and death, yet that should not detract from enjoying life? Does Socrates exemplify how we should all make the most of the time we have—by not getting belligerent and forgetful but, rather, being persistent in our pursuit of truth and virtue? I think Socrates would like us to think that tragedy and comedy are one and the same thing as evident of the last scene in the dialogue (223c–d):

[Aristodemus] awoke towards dawn, as the cocks were crowing; and immediately he saw that all the company were either sleeping or gone, except Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates […] ; and Socrates was arguing with them. […] the substance of it was, he said, that Socrates was driving them to the admission that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy—that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well. While they were being driven to this, and were but feebly following it, they began to nod; first Aristophanes [the comedian] dropped into a slumber, and then, as day began to dawn, Agathon [the tragedian] also. When Socrates had seen them comfortable, he rose and went away,—followed in the usual manner by my friend [Aristodemus]; on arriving at the Lyceum, [Socrates] washed himself, and then spent the rest of the day in his ordinary fashion; and so, when the day was done, he went home for the evening and reposed.

IDEA FOR PRACTICE: Treat every day as special and every day as ordinary. Recall to mind that your life is a tragedy by definition—it will end in death—but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a comedy as well—it will end in happiness.

KALĒ SYMPOSIA!

Reading 

At the very least, we should read some of the Symposium. It’s moderately long, so if you’re short on time, just read sections 193e-212c for the philosophical essence. Here are all the sections with my recommendations. Of course, readers get the full impact of the work when they read it from beginning to end.

  • Read sections 172a-175e (for background): Apollodorus’ and Aristodemus’s Prologues
  • Read sections 176a-177e (for background): Speech-giving Preliminaries
  • Skip sections 178a-189b (read to detect later references and ring structure of dialogue): Encomia on Love by Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Eryximachus
  • Skip sections 189c-193d (read to detect later references and to appreciate its beauty… and if you’re a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch): Aristophanes’s Folktale on Love 
  • Read sections 193e-212c (for its philosophical substance): Agathon’s encomium on love up to the end of Socrates’s teachings of Diotima)
  • Read [if time allows] section 212d-223a (for its insight into Socrates the man): Alcibiades’s Antics and Encomium on Socrates
  • Read 223b-223d (for closure): Epilogue

Postscript

Here’s more detail about the calculations for the date.

Athenaeus of Naucratis (3rd Century CE) in Bk. 5 of his Deipnosophistae sets the date of Agathon’s first victory with his first tragedy as the Linaean festival of the 4th year of the 90th Olympiad, which would correspond to 416 BCE. This corresponds with the two in-text support we have: (A) The festivities seem to take place during Lenaia (the 12th day of the month of Gamēliōn) since Agathon mentions Dionysus at 175e, Aristodemus mentions that it was a long winter’s night at 223c, and Lenaia is the only Dionysian festival that took place during winter; and (B) the events certainly took place after the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE) but before the Sicilian Expedition (415 BCE) that led to Alcibiades’s exile since Alcibiades is there himself to recount Socrates’s courage during the first half of the Peloponnesian War at 219e-221c. Since Athenaeus’s date hasn’t been seriously disputed by the scholarship, I think it’s reasonable to adopt that date and year: 12 Gamēliōn, 416 BCE. If use data on summer solstices and moon phases during the 417-416 BCE solar year (the Attic Calendar was lunisolar) and extend the Julian calendar backwards, the 12th day of Gamēliōn in 416 BCE fell on Jan. 5th.

Careful readers will note that the symposium that Socrates attended actually took place the day after Linaia as reported at 174a. This would mean that the dramatic events took place on Jan. 6th—a notable day for Christians (Epiphany) and, since 2020, for all Americans. I decided against shifting the date so that Stoics and philosophers can have more space to contemplate Plato’s Symposium.

WORKS CONSULTED

Allen, R.E. (1991). The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. II: The Symposium. Yale University Press.

Hannah, R. (2005). Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of time in the classical world. Bristol Classical Press.

Nails, D. (2002). The People of Plato: A prosopography of Plato and other Socratics. Hackett Publishing Company.

Parke, H.W. (1986). Festivals of the Athenians. Cornell University Press.Scullard, H.H. (1981). Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Cornell University Press.